Are your uni days the best of your life?

The SMH yesterday wrote up this report which, as many other analyses have, finds graduates are not happier than other people (though the research is mixed on this; some studies do find a benefit, and in the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes sample graduates are happier).

Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition by Curtin University’s Michael Dockery is especially interesting on the question of graduates and happiness because it uses the the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), which tracks the same individuals over time. They start when the respondents are in Year 9 and finish when they are in their mid-20s. This lets us see happiness over time and the possible effects of changing circumstances.

Happiness relative to mean, by educational attainment

Source: Figure 2(b) in Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition, published by NCVER

What this shows is that people who will eventually get undergraduate degrees start out with above average happiness and end up with slightly below average happiness. People who will eventually get postgraduate degrees are the happiest in 1997, but only average in 2006. By contrast, those who destined for lower qualifications are relatively unhappy in 1997 but happier (relatively, and in asbolute terms) in 2006.

It is leaving university that seems to deal the biggest blow to the happiness of degree attainers, while for the less educated the pattern is broadly the reverse. Getting a job improves their lives. Dockery’s various statistical tests can’t quite pin down the cause, but he concludes:

On average, university graduates have favourable childhood circumstances, enjoy school and their university studies. Are these the best years of their lives with which later life experiences never quite compare? The panel models which capture the change in happiness as young people move from education to work would be most sensitive to such an effect, and indeed these show the most robust evidence of a negative impact of completing a university degree. Apprenticeships, which combine learning with on-the-job work experience, may provide a longer-lasting and positive appreciation of what is done in life, as well as more realistic expectations upon becoming a tradesperson.

My theory goes something like this: People who aren’t academic move from an environment in which they struggle and are regarded as weak or failures into an environment (work, usually) in which they can perform the necessary tasks and are rewarded for doing so, both financially and through social recognition. Unsurprisingly, their happiness improves.

People who are academic move from an environment in which they do well, can explore themselves and their interests, and are intellectually stimulated into an environment (work) in which they have to work regular and more intense hours, have much less discretion over what they are doing, must do work that can be boring, and are often near the bottom of the organisational status system. Unsurprisingly, their happiness goes down.

The question which Dockery’s data can’t answer is whether life improves for graduates. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t – I’ve now seen 20+ years of new graduates going through the culture shock of the ‘real world’, but most adapt and come to like their careers as they move out of their early years of employment.

7 thoughts on “Are your uni days the best of your life?

  1. Having both undergraduate degrees and later postgraduate quals with employment between, I feel qualified to comment. A lot of univeristy students do not have a direction and are both straightjacketed in the academic world (into which they do not fit, as you note) yet have too much freedom at the same time.

    Gradually as life goes on, many discover their real interests and can devote time and resources into developing these. Family is also a source of happiness, BTW, and this again tends to be very much a post-Uni experience.


  2. “People who will eventually get postgraduate degrees are the happiest in 1997, but only average in 2006”
    Damn it. I should finished in 1999 or 1995…
    More seriously, what would be interesting also would be to break down the degree and postgraduate categories — my bet is that in the post graduate category, and to a much lesser extent the degree category, part of the drop-off is due to rather more simple things, like a difference between wages people get and those they expected to get, so degrees where you get high wages to start won’t be as affected. A second possibility is that many postgraduates use their studies as a time to have children (where I work, it’s like an infant lab) and are in a climate that will bend over backwards to accommodate them (not surprisingly, since it doesn’t make much difference, except to administrators no-one cares about). Once they then hit the workforce, suddenly they are going to be in a position where their children are going to be in childcare, they can’t bring them to work easily, they will have to make trade-offs they didn’t think too hard about etc.


  3. Andrew I agree with your basic conclusion about people who are/aren’t academically inclined.

    The revelation to me at my 10 year school reunion was that some of my class mates who were really crap at school were doing really well at life post-school.

    Those who were really successful at school and uni find that in the work world no one cares how smart you are or how much potential you have. What they want is you to do lots of boring tasks (that you master quickly) many times because that’s profitable.


  4. I did not like university ( in India). I felt that they were teaching outdated rubbish. The best years were after the university as a research student without the burden of a guide; luckily there are also such places in India.


  5. These findings raise the question of whether happiness should be taught at universities. There has been some serious discussion of this e.g. by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, in his recent book, ‘The politics of happiness’.
    There are some comments on Bok’s book in the last couple of posts on my blog.


  6. Winton – Thanks for that. I agree that there is unlikely to be any value in teaching happiness, and indeed the Dockery data doesn’t really reveal any significant problem. On average, graduates are happy enough.


  7. Hi Andrew – I think there is a lot of truth in your hypothesis on the decline in relative happiness for graduates upon leaving school. On the issue of whether life improves, however, I can tell you from other Australian data that this paradox seems to persist right through thier lives. The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey has data on life satisfaction. I’ve looked at this by 10 year age groups and average life satisfaction is lower for graduates in every category. If you are interested, email me and I will send the graph.


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